What is Wrong with “Food for the Brain”?

T1he charity ‘Food for the Brain’ has laudable stated aims: helping educate parents and teachers about how children’s nutrition can be improved and how this may help them at school. Food for the Brain has achieved a high profile, through appearances of its founder and CEO, Patrick Holford, on programmes such as GMTV and Tonight with Trevor McDonald. However, we fear that the charity’s unscientific approach and practices, their associations with very controversial sources of medical opinion, and the links between Food for the Brain and supplement businesses may subvert these aims and even do children harm.

Specifically, we have the following concerns:

  • The ‘trials’ being undertaken are unscientific and produce ambiguous results. The Schools Projects that looks for improved school performance after making changes in children’s diets, supplement intake and exercise are not scientific and are likely to give highly misleading results. The programme appears to have none of the controls and scientific discipline usually found in such exercises, and so cannot differentiate the factors that lead to success. Supplement companies – involved with Food for the Brain and their Schools Project trials – may use these trials to give the false impression of scientific validity for the products they sell.
  • There is an over-emphasis on giving and selling supplements to children, which is not justified by science. The Food for the Brain web site specifically recommends the supplementation of all children with vitamin and oil pills. This may give the misleading impression that such supplements may be necessary in order for children to be healthy or do well at school. Children would benefit much more from improved diet than expensive supplements. If children are not eating an adequate diet, it is better for them to modify their diet – in order to get the nutrients they need – than to rely on pills. It is less expensive and the evidence says nutrients gained through diet are more effective than those taken through pills. Plus, a good diet also brings broader benefits (e.g. good diet is an effective way of avoiding obesity). If children are eating well, supplement pills will generally be unnecessary.
  • The influence of the nutritional ideas of Patrick Holford’s Optimum Nutrition Programme may be disproportionately influencing thinking. Patrick is the founder and CEO of the charity and he earns income from supplement licensing deals and endorsements. Patrick’s ideas are based on the alternative medicine philosophy of Nutritional Therapy and Orthomolecular Medicine. This philosophy is highly disputed by dietitians, scientific nutritionists and scientists in general. Many worry that such ideas may lead to the over-consumption of supplements and/or the avoidance of effective medical treatment. At best, it is likely to lead to wasted money.
  • Despite much publicity, there is still little evidence that using food supplements, such as omega 3, can generally boost children’s performance. This is still an area of much debate an the highly publicised ‘trails’ of such supplements have been heavily criticised by many and are seen as little more than publicity stunts for supplement companies. It would have been great if Food for the Brain had conducted high quality research into omega 3 supplements; however, their ‘trials’ also look like more publicity and marketing.
  • The charity use inaccurate techniques to determine the need for children to take mineral supplements. Hair Mineral Analysis claims to be able to determine the levels of minerals in the body by analysing hair. However, the ability for this technique to be used in a clinical way is extremely controversial. The American Medical Association have banned the technique as its use can lead to health fraud in the sales of supplements. The Nutrition School that Patrick set up, ION, teaches the use of this technique as part of its curriculum. The programme director at the college has a private practice in Hair Mineral Analysis and Patrick Holford uses her company to carry out such analyses.
  • There is inadequate regulation of the nutritional therapists in the UK. The title ‘Nutritionist’ is unprotected in the UK, unlike the term ‘Dietitian’. Nutritionists have no regulatory body which might oversee nutritionists working with children.
  • The costs of taking the Food for the Brain’s approach of nutritional testing and taking supplements would be prohibitively expensive for most parents. The subsidiary company of Food for the Brain, The Brain Bio Centre, says that most of its clients spend between £600 and £1100 on tests and spend £2 to £3 per day on supplements. For a family of 3 children, the annual cost would be between £4000 and £6500.
  • The charity recommends inaccurate techniques to look for ‘allergies and intolerances’ in children. Holford appears to regularly conflate allergy and intolerance. He gives inappropriate advice on diagnosing allergies and intolerance. And, once again, he happens to sell the ‘diagnostic’ tools that he’s promoting.
  • The charity has given out dangerous advice regarding autism and elimination diets. At the start of the year, there were reports that Food for the Brain intervention in Merton had caused an autistic girl to suffer unhealthy weight loss along with sleep problems. However, until April 2007 Food for the Brain’s online action plan for autism still advised that children should eliminate “[l]ikely culprit foods such as wheat and dairy from the diet. In any case, avoid additives and preservatives”. The site did not advise parents to seek medical supervision – elimination diets can be harmful, if not managed properly – or mention the need to find appropriate replacement foods.
  • Food for the Brain lists among its affiliations an American organization that holds strong anti-psychiatry views and has links with Scientology. Safe Harbor was set up by a prominent Scientology’s and promotes similar extreme anti-psychiatry views to L Ron Hubard and the Scientology movement. Patrick Holford is listed as a member of their Advisory Board. Surprisingly, one of the Food for the Brain’s psychologists, Melanie Herff, was involved in an expose of Safe Harbor as a Scientology front in a German newspaper. Why she is not so concerned now is not clear. Patrick’s own statements in the FFTB newsletter reflect this hostility to the medical profession and has describe conventional medical approaches to treating mental disorders as ‘mental straight-jacket’. We find is language unhelpful, and the extreme messages given by Safe harbor damaging, when communicating with parents who may have children with mental health problems.

In general, whilst we welcome initiatives to improve children’s diets, we are worried that Food for the Brain is using alternative medicine style approaches and personnel, and that a science-based dietary approach will tell us more about what works and what does not, and will be the best way of ensuring dietary improvements and safety for the children.

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14 Comments

Filed under Food for the brain, Uncategorized

14 responses to “What is Wrong with “Food for the Brain”?

  1. Good food, regular exercise, boring stuff like scheduled bedtimes and adequate sleep – it’s amazing what a difference this can make to children (and adults). No supplements involved and no dodgy tests involving unvalidated hair, urine or blood analyses.

    Chineham Park Primary was making substantial improvements to the children’s performance before FFTB came along. These improvements were based on useful interventions like Reading Schemes and greater parental involvement.

  2. Pingback: Patrick Holford and Chineham Primary School: Where does the praise belong? « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  3. Monique

    Shame on you – Patrick Holford is doing fabulous work as very visibly documented on television for all to behold – it’s sickening that people like you have to find the bad in this kind of work – let’s get real – how many children do you think are going to change their diets! hello!!!! supplements are a vital part of assisting children – how much research have you bothered to do on the vitamine and mineral content of today’s food? i suggest you get something better to do with yourselves than bad mouthing someone who is doing a great deal of good!

    • Lorna Smith

      You moron Patrick Holford is a nutritional
      genius so go back to the dark ages where you
      belong. There is no room in modern nutritional
      medicine for backward retards like you

  4. LeeT

    Monique

    Very few children I know do the family shopping or plan the family meals for the week. Generally, parents do that. However, a six-year-old in my family is very fond of fresh fruit and vegetables. It is all to with the example he is set by the adults around him. Neither he or his parents take supplements and they are all very healthy.

    What example are we setting our children if we tell them to get get their nutrients from supplements rather than food?

    Surveys show that most British people do not eat five portions of fruit and vegetables. Why not have a campaign to encourage parents to get their children to: (i) eat more fruit and vegetables (ii) eat oily fish two or three times a week (iii) eat more nuts (iv) drink more water

    Once we are all eating better (and doing more exercise) we can then look at the effects of supplements on healthy people. My view is that, in all probability, it would not make much difference. However, perhaps the Institute for Optimum Nutriton would like to rise to this challenge.

    Could you please explain why you do not think children will find fresh wholesome food exciting?

    Lee

  5. LeeT

    Monique

    Before you reply you might like to take a look at the following information on The Food Standards Agency website regarding vitamin supplements

    http://www.food.gov.uk/healthiereating/healthycatering/healthycatering06/#h_287049

    Look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Best wishes,

    Lee

  6. Indeed, Monique might benefit from looking at the actual background, qualification and experience that Holford has rather than the version that used to be in his CV/profile until he amended it recently.

    Do you really want to take your nutritional advice from somebody who can’t communicate simple results correctly: e.g., the efficacy of vitamin C in reducing ‘cold’ days for children?

    Couldn’t agree more with LeeT that children need to know that the major source of their micronutrients should come along with their macronutrients – in other words, they should get it from the food that they eat, in the absence of any contraindications.

    If we are handing out advice to each other, might I suggest that you might benefit from considering the links and advice here, especially LeeT’s comments, rather than badmouthing others for alleged badmouthing?

  7. Lee, that is a very interesting notion for a challenge. Double-blind, placebo-controlled etc. but very interesting.

    It is usually said that the notion of a 5-a-day is neither here nor there in many cultures, from all the usual comparisons, children in France, Italy and much of India don’t have any problem meeting this quota. Why is this such a problem in the UK and (presumably) the US?

  8. children need to know that the major source of their micronutrients should come along with their macronutrients

    Absolutely. In adults, supplement pills don’t appear to have the same effects as eating the vitamins in fruit, veg etc. (e.g. certain antioxidant supplements are associated with increased mortality). It seems unlikely that supplement pills will do children nearly as much good as healthy food.

    Also, part of the problem with unhealthy eating isn’t ‘just’ a lack of nutrients – but too much of certain things. e.g. too much ‘bad’ fat, refined sugar, too calorific a diet, etc. Supplements won’t offer a solution to this.

  9. LeeT

    Shinga

    Presumably you could four groups: (1) those eating a horrible diet; (2) those eating a horrible diet with supplements; (3) those eating a healthy diet full of fish, nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables but no supplements and (4) those eating a healthy diet with supplements.

    I am not sure how such an experiment would work in practice. I would feel rather bad about imposing it on children. Perhaps some student volunteers could be recruited?! How would you check people stuck to the required diet? Presumably they would have to be kept in a clinical setting for several months? Are there any research scientists or professional dieticians out there such as Catherine Collins who could advise on how such an experiment would be carried out?

    I suppose part of the reason we find it difficult to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables is that we are so divorced from the land. We don’t recognise real food. Nonetheless, there are grounds for optimism. The town where I live has a popular monthly Farmers’ Market and the supermarkets seem to be promoting healthy eating that they used to.

    You mentioned France and Italy. Dietary fads seem to come and go, but the Mediterranean Diet seems to have stood the test of time. It would be interesting to know the numbers of French, Greek and Italian people taking supplements. A survey quoted in the excellent “Nutrition for Dummies” stated that 47% of British women and 35% of men use vitamine and mineral supplements.

    Lee

  10. It is rather an odd notion that you couldn’t get ethical consent to inflict a diet on some children that resembles one they already eat so, perhaps there couldn’t be groups 1 or 2.

    As for your well-made points, people usually get around that by either providing all the food (very expensive research) or keeping them in a controlled setting (even more expensive research). The cheaper research option (as you know) is relying upon people’s recall by asking them to keep food diaries (always dodgy, no independent verification). I think for supplements, the usual technique is that the researchers provide them and then ask for all the left-overs at various waypoints so that you can estimate how many were taken.

    It will be interesting if Catherine Collins or someone similar can comment on good design here.

    I’ve noticed that more commenters and researchers are now referring to the Indo-Mediterranean diet as particularly healthful.

    I must look out for the book as that sounds like an interesting survey.

  11. LeeT

    “Nutrition for Dummies” is an excellent book – two of the authors are dieticians. It is a little bit more expensive than “The Optimum Nutrition Bible” (which I gave up half-way through!) but I found it much more readable.

    On page 268 it states: “In general nutrition experts, including the Food Standards Agency and the British Dietetic Association, recommend that you invest your time and money in eating meals and snacks that supply the nutrients you need in a balanced, tasty diet.”

  12. Well, that recommendation sounds entirely sensible: spend your money on foods that provide a good nutritional balance over the week.

  13. gaius

    The American Medical Association has not “banned” hair mineral analysis. Read your own link.

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